Gottfried Benn's Orpheus' Death

Hugh Ridley

University College

It is no surprise to find Gottfried Benn, one of the most distinguished and (more unusually) long-lived poets of the German Expressionist generation,[1] using classical myths prominently in his major post-war collection Statische Gedichte (Static Poems, 1948).[2] Titles such as '5. Jahrhundert' (Fifth Century, 1945, p.334) or that enigmatic and much imitated evocation of the 'Istrian palace' in 'Welle der Nacht' (Night Wave, 1940, p.292) draw attention to the continuing importance of classical antiquity in Benn's poetry. Ever since the early poems, celebrating escape and intoxication through many of the classical ciphers which Nietzsche had established (prominent among them, of course, the figure of Dionysos), classical themes had been a central element of Benn's work. Characteristic of his time was also a modernisation of myth, strikingly shown in the poem 'D-Zug' (Express Train, 1912, p.35), where the rebirth of Greek values - in this case, elements of sun-god worship and the cult of the sea - is found to be celebrated at the modern bathing-resorts on the Baltic, among the paraphernalia of modern tourism. The pagan cult of the sun does not stop on the beach but continues on the express-train returning to Berlin. 'Greek happiness' is no less the goal of the journey than the other places listed on the destination board ('Berlin, Trelleborg and the Baltic resorts'). Thus the train becomes a time-capsule, linking metropolitan Berlin to the Dionysian elements of ancient cults, a browning and paganising of the modern civilised body which extends 'right into the mouth'. In much the same way Wilhelm Jensen's Gradiva (1903), which so strongly caught Freud's imagination,[3] reactivated the sense of Pompeii as a modern city with crowds and rush-hours, and like Jensen Benn used erotic themes to link two cultures - the central theme of repression and the framework theme of honeymoons. Like Jensen too Benn uses the train as the time-machine to modernise the myth and to regress. He evokes an erotic scene within the train which combines these elements:

A woman is something with smell.
Inexpressible. Pass away. Bloom, reseda.
The south is in there, shepherd and sea.
On every hill-side stands a happiness. While Greek myth and legend remained central to Benn's lyrical output in the 1920s and 1930s, a clear shift took place - as Wodtke pointed out in a standard work[4] - from the Dionysian to the 'Apolline'. One may trace how the Expressionist revolt, the search for ecstasy and the breaking of moulds (for which 'Karyatide' of 1916 is a clear example: the statue is invited to join the Dionysian dance and to 'destroy the temple', p.81), gave way in Benn's poetry to an ever-stronger yearning for absolute artistic form. While Dionysos, Eleusis and the horses of Lysippus are lost in an increasing heap of archaeological rubble ('Schutt', 1922, p.140f) for which we have no other word than History and which has nothing to offer the individual or the poet ('You must give yourself everything, Gods have nothing to give', 1929, p.215) Benn's poetry increasingly insists that the message of classical culture is pure form ('Statues carry the seed', 1936, p.278) and that form and the perfection of the artefact represent a code which is passed on intact from the ancient world to the present.

One decisive point of this shift was reached in Dorische Welt (Doric World), a long essay which Benn published in 1934, a year after he had decided to stay in Germany and to collaborate with Hitler's regime. Despite the wealth of information (drawn principally from Burckhardt) and interest concerning the ancient world which this essay reveals, it is an unfortunate place for modern readers to turn to explore further Benn's enthusiasm for the classical world. The essay (3,824-60) - included in a volume of laudatory essays on various of the cultural manifestations of fascism - compromises its aesthetics with political enthusiasms which ought to win it no friends among modern readers. Such a compromise was unnecessary anyway, since Benn's cult of absolute form made no less personal or social sense in the context of his life at the end of the 1930s, when his ill-placed sympathy with the regime had come to an end and he was forced to defend his poetry against the attacks of the SS. Indeed, many of Benn's most sympathetic post-war critics (we mention only Th.W. Adorno and Alfred Andersch) were attracted to Benn precisely because they understood his classically inspired aesthetics as a conscious resistance to all forms of social control: to what Adorno undifferentiatingly called the 'administered world'.

If it was unnecessary for Benn to have identified his classical aesthetics with Hitler, it was by no means accidental that he did so. His cult of form inspired him equally with admiration for the formal austerity of Doric art and with emulative zeal for the authoritarian state fascism of the Doric state. Benn insists that the Doric world, like the Third Reich, 'was built on the bones of slaves' (3,831), and his essay plays on the interchangeable terminology of poetry and politics, so that concepts such as discipline, form and organisation are made to operate in both discourses. On parallels of this kind Thomas Mann was to create his allegorical equation between modern art and fascism in his novel Doktor Faustus (1947). Benn, throughout his essay, insists on the Apolline elements of Greek culture expressed in Doric art, and by the end of the 1930s he had still further refined his cult of form and appearance (by now in an unpolitical context), following Nietzsche's later enthusiasm for Greece as an Olymp des Scheins (Olympus of appearance).[5] At one point in his essay Benn makes a programmatic statement to show how decisively he has broken with the Nietzschean legacy of the Birth of Tragedy, which had been written in response to the birth of the German Empire and round Nietzsche's fatal enthusiasm for the music of Wagner: 'And now that we're not such enthusiastic Wagnerians', Benn wrote, 'that we have to find Tristan in Thrace, we look for the Greek spirit in Doria, and not in Dion' (3,849).

There is plenty of interest in the shift of Benn's classical concerns and in the wide historical perspectives which Benn's succumbing to Hitler opens out, both for his poetry and for the traditions of classical humanism in which his work participates, and they have been passionately discussed. Alfred Kurella - writing 1937 from the high-ground of exile in Moscow - summarised this when he referred to Benn's essay as made up of 'the rubble of scholarship, miserably glued together, a whole edifice constructed out of the saw-dust left behind after the destructive work of Bachofen, Rohde, Burckhardt, Nietzsche, Chamberlain, Bäumler and Rosenberg gnawing away at Winckelmann and Goethe's image of classical antiquity'[6]. Such listing of names is misleading, for Houston Stewart Chamberlain and the other knights of the Bayreuth Grail certainly related only to the early Nietzsche, whom, as we have just seen, Benn deserted in his praise of the Doric world. Kurella's defence of the old humanist tradition is inseparable from the Stalinist critique of modernity which lay behind the 'Expressionism debates' of the 1930s, and he would have rejected Jensen and Freud's approach to myth no less decisively than he rejected Benn's. Even after Benn had withdrawn himself and his classical enthusiasms from support for fascism, there was too much modernisation in his work for the purists of the Central Committee to accept them, and Benn's return to Apollo could never have been accepted as a return to classical humanism.

It is against this background that Benn's poem 'Orpheus' Tod' (Orpheus' Death, 1946, p.343f) deserves our attention, as a return to a less politicised concept of classicism, but one which still questions the poet's relationship to tradition. We should start by sketching the background to the evolution of this text. The time is January 1945 and Benn is serving as an army-doctor in the town of Landsberg an der Warthe (where the fifteen-year old Christa Wolf is, at that very time, preparing to flee to the West), under threat of death if he and his company do not hold out to the last man against the Red Army's advance on Berlin. Benn has just sent a packet of his own most recent manuscripts - disguised as the last effects of a soldier killed on the Eastern Front - to his friend and mentor F.W. Oelze and, with Ovid's Metamorphoses at his side, Benn's thoughts turn to death, and to that death which perhaps, as a great goodness of fate, might be his: that at least his works are rescued and thus enabled to continue to he heard, while his body is torn apart by the victorious Soviet Army. Not that Benn feels any remorse about his part in the National Socialist episode (he sees himself as martyr before he thinks himself punished). Within days the 'heroic' defence of Landsberg has crumbled into the lying emptiness of the rest of Hitler's empire and Benn is fleeing back to what is left of Berlin. So it is not surprising that he starts with Orpheus' death and uses it to express a minimalist hope for his poetry. There are enough corpses floating down the rivers for it to be understandable that Benn should ask: which of the dead may yet sing, even though their song can be heard only from beyond death. Orpheus is sure of his impending death, for those who seek to kill him are those over whom 'for the first time, his words had no effect'.[7]

Meanwhile Benn's wife - enabled by her skills as a professional typist and secretary to remain with him during his military service in Landsberg - returns to relatives in a less threatened part of Germany, where she experiences the final German capitulation. The village she stays in is in American hands, but is then - like other parts of Germany at this time - reassigned to the Soviet Occupation Zone, and this trauma augments Herta Benn's fear that her husband has been killed in the last months of the war. She uses the morphine which Benn left with her and commits suicide. When the news of her death eventually reaches Benn - by now painfully re-establishing himself in Berlin - he makes two visits to her grave, the second in August 1946. In one of the letters to Oelze which accompany every step in his life during these years, he compares this visit to 'a real journey across the Styx'.[8] Suddenly we have the completion of the Orpheus story, through the inclusion of the first half of the myth. Benn's head is not merely floating down the river (in imagination only, but there are other threats to his work now than his own death: because of Benn's support for Hitler, the Allies impose a ban on his work, which is not lifted until 1949), but the loved one has been left in the world of the dead while the other loved one has been left behind in the uninhabitable world of the living. We see this reversal clearly in the opening lines of the poem. He, Orpheus, has been left behind, not Eurydice:

How you leave me behind, beloved woman,
forced by Erebus
to inhospitable Rhodope
into the woods ...
Three years now in the northern tempest!
It is sweet to think of the Dead
Those who are so distant
their voice is heard more purely
their kisses too
the fleeting and the deep.
Yet you wandering among the shades. The result is a poem which sings both of the beloved's death and of the death of Orpheus himself, hacked to death by the Maenads. Instead of following Ovid into accounts of the revenge of Bacchus on the women of Thrace, Benn's poem ends with the lyre singing still as it passes down the river: 'and now the lyre / goes down the river / the banks are ringing.'

We have therefore not only a canonical poem on the Orpheus myth, but we sense that myth has been called into service at a special moment, when major events are being discussed. No less than Nietzsche had begun at the birth-hour of the German Empire - 'with the guns of Metz in my ears' - to reflect on the Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music; no less than Christa Wolf at the demise of her state would look back to the destruction of Troy and see herself as the unheeded prophetic voice of Cassandra - as Coleridge remarked: 'still doth the old instinct bring back the old names' - so too at the crisis of his personal and poetic life does Benn look to myth, not just the cold forms of the statues and the dry seed which they contain but the warm and more fully worked out contours of a whole myth.

In so doing, of course, Benn brought himself back into proximity to the great lyric figure of the generation before his, Rainer Maria Rilke, whose Sonnets to Orpheus (1923) established that equation between the figure and myth of Orpheus and the lives of poets in the present. With Orpheus coming to life again in Benn's poetry, more than twenty years after Rilke's death, there are many changes, both in the understanding of the myth and in its interpretation: no less striking are changes reflected in the reception of the two poems. In particular, the starting-point of the text's relationship to the poets' biography is radically different.

For Rilke too there had been personal overtones in the choice of myth for his collection of poetry. He had been deeply (and, as in so many personal matters, lightly) touched by the premature death of the dancer Wera Ouckama Knoop. Nevertheless, the whole thrust of Rilke's collection is towards generality and broad statements concerning the link between art and death. The real death is the abstract death all humans face: the tension between life and death is bridged in the poet, who has left his love in the world of the dead and, returning to life, still works with death in his heart. Neither Rilke's nor Orpheus' own life is under question: Orpheus' living energy is being explicitly invoked to cope with the generic issues of modernity (city life, mechanisation, secularisation). That's what the myth means. While Rilke clearly sublimated personal experience into the myth's reconstruction so completely that its personal origin cannot be identified - Benn was always jealous of the advantages of a financially cushioned existence for Rilke, but that did not necessarily mean that Rilke had less to sublimate - Benn's work, with so much direct tragedy to handle, works his personal tragedies more visibly into the texture of the Orpheus story. That not all critics have read the poem as personally as my telling suggests says more about their own place in a critical tradition relating to myth - seeing myth within an idealistic and de-personalised tradition as 'a total synthesis of human activity in a collective and indeed infinite poem ... a symbolic expression of the absolute'[9] - than about Benn's use of myth in the poem. In fact, in the poems to or about Orpheus and in the critical response they have evoked, we can see an important shift in the understanding of myth over the last seventy years. We may suggest two general positions. Some see myth as a perennial structure, a bearer of truths which 'synthesises' all elements of experience (such had been the search of Yeats, Eliot and Joyce). Others see myth as a structure standing over and supporting personal experience, but transcendent only in terms of the names which it bears.

A natural starting point to consider the position of Rilke's interpreters is Hans Egon Holthusen's 1937 study of the Sonnets to Orpheus. It shares features typical of much of the critical effort until the 1970s. It is no coincidence that Holthusen, writing in a society involved in the authoritative announcement of a myth, begins his discussion with the 'myth of language': 'It is essential to all myths that - like the evangelising efforts of religions - they aim at spreading the message. Myths are realised in doctrine and canon, even if the presentation of specific literary myths takes place through art rather than dogma: myth here is realised in language'.[10] The voice of authority is strong in this statement, notwithstanding its proviso. No less unambiguous is the insistence on the role of the poet in creating the authority of myth, by moving from the first to the third person, surrendering personal identity to the perennial structure of the myth. Holthusen takes the argument one step further when he summarises the development of Rilke as being 'from I to we' (p.36), a shift of perspective obviously regarded as essential to the mythopoeic properties of poetry within a collectivist society such as Hitler's state.

It was not only in the 1930s that this view had status: readings of Rilke's Orpheus sonnets have been inseparable from such authority, whether it is the celebrated Rilke scholar Eudo C. Mason arguing that the figure of Orpheus 'is here conceived of as the supreme god of poetry, the prototype of whom all individual poets are but fleeting and imperfect metamorphoses'[11] (the hierarchy is clear: the perennial centre is more valid than the ephemeral personality of the poet), or in the image of Orpheus' song passing as 'indelible trace' to the 'trees and birds', thus establishing the victory of order over the cries of the Maenads.[12] A more recent critic summarises this view when he writes: 'The Orpheus of the Sonnets is not human poet ... but everywhere a god' [13] Such certainties were not only general to Rilke himself, therefore: his readers shared them in full.

Benn, as we implied, was no great admirer of Rilke. Quite apart from the envy he felt (less acute as time passed than that he felt for the other lyrical genius of the century, Bertolt Brecht), Benn argued that Rilke's poetry and temperament 'remain within that sphere of high-minded religious and national ideas, in the sphere of legitimate communal ties and ideas of totality which modern poetry can hardly recognise' (4,1062), a judgement Benn passed in his lecture on Problems of Poetry (1951) - a text often referred to as the 'ars poetica' of post-war German poetry. Benn criticised Nietzsche for having compromised his classical ideal by identifying it with a contemporary national phenomenon.[14] Nietzsche too had, however briefly, sold out Greek art to those 'communal ties' and 'ideas of totality' which Wagner represented. Benn's critique of Nietzsche is relevant to his own appalling error of judgement (and ethics) in 1933, and both errors were made against the background of an understanding of myths which involved claims for their wider validity and authority. No wonder that the later Benn identifies as a principle of life the view that: 'Everything I say is true only within my words' (5,1413) - a remark which distanced him from a view of myth as a way of speaking which lies 'outside' one's words and lays claim to wider truths. Orpheus might still sing, but he would watch his words.

Nevertheless, early readings of Benn's Orpheus' Death remained within the tradition set by Rilke and his critics. Despite its firm basis in the details of Benn's biography, the standard interpretation of the poem, offered by Harald Steinhagen in 1964, is structured traditionally. Steinhagen's examination of the relation of the poem to Benn's experience is summarised as follows: The 'detachment from the personality of the poet ... can be seen as the result of the objectivising transfer - a metaphor - of private experience into the artistically preformed analogue of the ancient mythology'[15]. This interpretation is clearly based on an evaluative hierarchy of private and general truths. On this basis Steinhagen subsequently interprets the formal structure of the poem. He shows how Benn set to work to turn the epic presentation of Orpheus' story which he found in Ovid (and therefore potentially recognisable as the narrative of Benn's experience) into a distillation and concentration required by lyric poetry. He writes: '[Benn's] purpose consisted of something other than the epic extension of the myth by continuous action, but its presentation as an 'immobile' piece of lyrical concentration, leaving out or reworking its epic qualities' (p.125).

Steinhagen's reading was a tour de force, which for three decades has held the critical torch aloft on this poem. It was only in 1989 with the first volume of Klaus Theweleit's Buch der Könige, carrying the subtitle Orpheus (und) Eurydike, that our eyes are opened to elements of Benn's poem which Steinhagen saw differently, and as a result to readings of myths which Steinhagen's interpretation did not facilitate.

Theweleit's argument is not only difficult for his readers to summarise. It is part of a project (planned, it appears, at some four volumes and six thousand pages) to resituate modernism in the mixture of light and fascinating darkness with which the critical discourses of the last thirty years have enriched literary scholarship. Among its particular features is the book's readiness to drift across the frontiers between 'high' and 'low' culture and to explore the anchoring of archetypes and myths in comic strips and Hollywood. In Benn - whose claim for poetry had been that it was active 'on the starting-grids and saddling-enclosures of intellectual life' and on the cat-walks 'when Schiaparelli presents his new look, with grey linen and pineapple-yellow organdy' (4,1088) - Theweleit has an appropriate subject, and his work marks the extreme shifts which Orpheus has undergone in Benn. In conclusion we offer two symptomatic examples of his arguments: both of which concern the way in which Benn's life lives out the myth. So far we have suggested only the most general, existential reasons for Benn to have taken up the myth of Orpheus in 1945. For reasons which we have suggested Steinhagen's reading of Benn's poem reflected on Benn's situation only in general terms. Theweleit's eye for detail is stronger.

The death of Orpheus is provoked in Ovid's story by the fact that - after the loss of Eurydice - Orpheus preferred to centre his affections on boys of tender years. 'Look here. Here is he who scorns us', sneers the first of the women who attack him. As far as I am aware, this detail has seldom impinged on reworkings of the myth in poetry or criticism. Yet Theweleit shows convincingly that this pattern of behaviour is imitated in the background to Benn's poem,[16] in that the female function of inspiration has passed to Benn's male friend, F.W. Oelze. The conception and production of Orpheus' Death has dispensed with women no less decisively than did Orpheus when he left Eurydice in the underworld. The poem is a child of a male union.

We should not see such arguments as a introduction of reductive 'psychocriticism' into the interpretation of Benn's poem. Eurydice is not dead in order that Benn should come out. There is a wider argument than personal biography and Theweleit's reading fits into an extensive argument concerning literature as an 'inscription system' in a technical age. Theweleit locates his argument within Friedrich Kittler's analysis of the 'Aufschreibe-system', and starts from an examination of the way in which individual erotic love (as celebrated in German letters since Goethe) has ceased to be the constituting element in poetry. Women define themselves differently with regard to male writers, above all two movements have brought them into a communicative function less dependent on men and male expression: the development of psycho-analysis, which has given women a voice of their own and secondly, if less illustriously, their involvement with the activities of typing (in which Herta Benn was professionally engaged), so that their biographical details include their w.p.m. - of which we could say either that they add to the traditional erotic appeal of what male talk used to call a woman's 'vital statistics' (this was certainly true of Benn's relationship with Herta), or that they manifestly re-locate or make redundant the erotic. In the 1920s the typists took over the streets and stages of the metropolis, with their appropriate 'ornament',[17] the Tiller girls with their legs rising and falling in the curves and with the rhythms of the typewriter keys and thus redefining (not to say eliminating) traditional erotic ideas. So that, Theweleit suggests, Benn (and other figures in his study) do not really need their Eurydice in a traditional way. The death of 'their' women is therefore no travel accident caused by the excessive considerateness of the poet looking round lest Eurydice slip on the stairs, but a death almost deliberately caused by looking round at Hades. Such readings imply that poets use their women not for erotic purposes, but as a bridge to experience a new type of productivity in the life beyond, the 'averted side of life' as Käthe Hamburger calls it. So while Steinhagen sees the poem as a memorial to Benn's loyalty to his dead wife, he does so against a conception of integrative and perennial myth. Theweleit opens our eyes to the far more instrumental and historically situated activities of the modern writer, and to the shift which myth undergoes in this new arrangement.

And Theweleit bring us back to Rilke's view of death, bridging Orpheus. Eurydice is not merely accidentally forgotten, left behind in that waiting room which the world of the shades appears as - nor is she a symbol of the split of the poet himself who can make himself the 'master of contradictions'. She is a deliberate plant, a mole in the underworld, 'our woman in Havana'. She is planted, she is eliminated from this public world, so that one cannot find her name in the files, yet her identity changes and she cables in news from beyond.

We must stop at this point, for Ovid's text seems to have blown shut at some point in the discussion. While Benn, as I suggested, invites Theweleit's approach, it is possible that he would have enjoyed the prestige and anonymity of Steinhagen's reading. We ourselves - who, in an age where the sand threatens to blow over the tracks that lead us back to antiquity, have the job of teaching Benn and Ovid, somehow simultaneously informing students about and re-interpreting the heritage - both recognise in ourselves a yearning for centre and interpretative certainty and yet feel those certainties (if for different reasons) to be inaccessible to us and our students. Perhaps that modernisation which Benn began and his most recent critics continue corresponds appropriately to our pedagogic doubts.

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